My Neighbor Totoro Review
Deep in the countryside in the 1950s, a Tokyo university professor (Shigesato Itoi, Tim Daly) moves into a deserted old house with his two daughters, Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka, Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto, Elle Fanning). Though far from Tokyo, they're now closer to the Shichikokuyama Hospital, where Satsuki and Mei's mother is resident in as she recovers from an illness, likely to be tuberculosis. The old house and the surrounding farmland is quiet and almost deserted and as the girls explore their new home, they chase the soot spirits that were left in it up into the rafters but are themselves spooked by the acorns that fall down the attic steps towards them. That night, as Mei, Satsuki and their father bathe together in their new home, they laugh as loud as they can and the soot spirits scarper out through the roof, floating through the sky and past a great Camphor tree that grows outside. But something is sitting high in the branches of that tree and hooting into the night.
The next day, Satsuki goes to school and Mei is playing out in the yard when the spots a trail of acorns disappearing into the trees nearby. As she follows them into the trees, she sees a little white creature sprint across the garden before disappearing. As Mei looks around, it reappears and runs underneath the house and she follows it, not noticing that it sneaks out behind her along with a larger blue creature. Too late she sees them and runs after them, following them into the middle of a Camphor Laurel tree where she sees the biggest creature of all, who calls itself Totoro. When Satsuki arrives home and Mei is still missing, she and her father go in search of her little sister, finding her curled up in the forest and mumbling about Totoro, who, Mei thinks, will be there to take her and her sister on a magical journey if only she could find him again...
My Neighbour Totoro is one of the strangest animated films that you might ever come across. Were you used to the animated features produced by Disney or Dreamworks, which operate to different, though no less stringent sets of rules, My Neighbour Totoro, despite the animation being familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Studio Ghibli, is quite a unique production. For such a small, intimate story, it has a remarkable sense of ambition, looking outside of traditional ideas of storytelling to produce something that's not only wonderful to look at but also magical. Unlike a Disney production, there is no villains to speak of. Unlike a Dreamworks animated film, there are no rude interruptions from the pop cultural icons of the day, or yesteryear. It is as intent on breaking filmmaking rules as Pixar are of their own traditions but My Neighbour Totoro does so without fuss or fanfare. It's a charming film that revels in its own naivety and fantasy but which also captures the very small events in a child's life that go unnoticed by adults.
The two scenes that best describe the appeal of My Neighbour Totoro are Mei's discovery of the three Totoros - Oh-Totoro (big, grey), Chuu-Totoro (medium, blue) and Chibi-Totoro (small, white) - as well as Mei and Satsuki's waiting for the bus on which their father is coming back home, whereupon they're joined by the Totoros. In the former, Miyazaki and his animators perfectly capture the hurried play of an imaginative child in an empty yard before portraying the look of astonishment on Mei's face as she spots the ears of Chibi-Totoro poking up through the grass. The manner in which she runs after it is akin to how a child of a similar age - pre-school, between three and five years old, I suspect - would chase a cat, giggling at it but stopping occasionally to catch their breath and to take account of the chase. Mei's sitting perfectly still whilst Chuu-Totoro and Chibi-Totoro sneak away behind her is exactly how a child would deal with them. To Mei, there can be no other way out from under the house than the way they went in and she assumes that they will return via the same route on which they vanished. Chuu-Totoro and Chibi-Totoro know better, of course.
But better than this is when Satsuki and Mei are joined by Oh-Totoro as they wait for a bus. They have umbrellas but Oh-Totoro has nothing but a leaf on his head, too small to shelter his massive body from the rain. With Mei almost sleeping where she stands, Satsuki gives Oh-Totoro her umbrella and as he uses it for cover, the heavy drops of water that fall on it make a thunderous noise compared to the steady rainfall around them. It's this noise that first surprises Oh-Totoro but, as he realises what's happening, he jumps, shaking the ground and causing a giant splash of water on his umbrella. The enormous smile that lights up Oh-Totoro's face is a joy to watch.
It's only a small scene and nothing really happens in it other than some raindrops fall on an umbrella but the spirit in the animation is magical, with Miyazaki's talent being able to bring such wonder out of so very little. There's few words but you know, despite Oh-Totoro's size, that Satsuki and Mei will be fine with him and that the adventure that he leads them on will be a wonderful one. That adventure, when it comes, is one set on an equally small scale, with Oh-Totoro calling Satsuki and Mei out of their beds at night to watch his acorns grow in a small patch of the yard, watching as they sprout, take root and grow to such a size that they give shelter to their entire home. The next morning, the seeds haven't grown to such a size overnight but they have indeed sprouted. As Satsuki remarks, "It was a dream but it wasn't a dream!"
When there is drama late in the film, when Satsuki and Mei's mother cancels a visit home. Still wanting to see her mother, Mei sets off on foot to the hospital and gets lost, which causes a search of the countryside for the little girl. A sandal is found in a pond and there is concern that she may have drowned but Miyazaki sets the little girl down beside a row of Ojizou-sama statues - a holy figure in Buddhism, specifically with regards to the care of children - which lets the audience know that she's fine. Satsuki, with the help of Oh-Totoro, sets off in the Catbus, which helpfully changes its destination above its head to 'Mei', to find her little sister, which ends with the two of them watching their mother through her bedroom window in the hospital, as spirits in the trees more than anything else. It's a beautifully written and animated scene that caps this film in superb fashion.
For older viewers, adults even, there's the chance to appreciate all of this but also to enjoy an animated film that, contrary to what we've come to expect of them, is subdued. There's a wonderful sequence early in the film that summarises the experience of moving into a new home and the silence of that first night. With nothing unpacked, not least a radio or, this being the fifties, a gramophone, the house is silent but for the dripping of taps and the splashing of water in the bath where Satsuki, Mei and their father are bathing. Like Chihiro in Spirited Away tapping her shoe to make sure it's properly fitted, Kiki's occasional spill from her broom or the butterflies that flit away from the tanuki during their mating season in Pom Poko, the silence in their new house is just so right, so considered that it's impossible to fault, with Miyazaki. The director brings an experienced eye to this fabulous story of childish excitement, anxiety and bewilderment, never patronising Mei and Satsuki's troubles as they move home, start a new school and miss not having their mother with them to share the experience. Who better, Miyazaki suggests, to show Satsuki and Mei how much there is to enjoy in life than three Totoros, who may never return but who were there for them at the very moment when they were most needed.
Unlike its previous release on Region 1, when it was handled by Fox and, of all studios, Troma, Disney's release of My Neighbour Totoro has been presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 but bordered on all four sides, as shown in the screenshots. It looks very good on DVD with rich colours with no evidence of bleeding and with clean lines on each of the characters. The backgrounds look slightly softer than the main characters but that is a part of the original animation and not as a result of the transfer. There's very little noise in the picture and it handles the dark scenes without any trouble, looking very good throughout with a noticeable amount of grain adding to the quality of the picture rather than detracting from it.
The original Japanese audio track as well as Disney's dub are both included here in DD2.0 Stereo and there's little to complain about with either. The dub is the default track but this is selectable during the feature, as are the subtitles of which we have ones for the original Japanese language track as well as for the English dub.
Behind The Microphone (5m42s): In what's now a standard addition to the DVD releases of animated features, this goes behind the scenes to interview and to capture the voice talent at work during Disney's dubbing of My Neighbour Totoro. Having just watched Dreamer, I'm slightly troubled by seeing Dakota Fanning yet again, particularly alongside her younger sister, but knowing how good a job she did with Satsuki, it's easy to forgive her.
Opening/Ending Title Sequence Art (4m08s): In keeping with the rest of the film, the title and end credits sequences of My Neighbour Totoro are a wonderful jumble of images and still art, taken out of the film and presented here for no more reason, I suspect, than that they're simply terrific to watch.
Finally, on this disc, there's the original Japanese Theatrical Trailer (2m00s) and Sneak Peeks of Disney's Studio Ghibli collection, The Little Mermaid SE, Chicken Little, Cars, Airbuddies and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Original Japanese Storyboards (86m21s): The only feature on the second disc is the feature-length storyboards accompanied by either the original Japanese audio track or the Disney dub. Everything looks good when compared to the finished feature, other than Mei looking different and closer to Satsuki here, but it's fine, though more the sort of thing that you might dip into occasionally rather than watch in one sitting
Anyone who's been put off Studio Ghibli films by querying their more adult material, such as Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke, shouldn't have any such worries with My Neighbour Totoro - this is a wonderfully charming film that is amongst the studio's very best. Having even shown this to people who remain wary of non-Hollywood animation - they have few faults but a fear of subtitles is one of them - I was glad to hear that they warmed to this and, as a consequence, began asking about Howl's Moving Castle. My Neighbour Totoro is a film that has that kind of effect, a slightly disarming one, which brings you into the quiet world of Satsuki, Mei and the three Totoro in their garden.